Today is our last day in sunny California and it’s going to be a long one – or is it? Our boarding passes state ‘seats to be allocated at gate’. We shall have to wait until we reach the airport before we find out if we get to spend all night on a plane or are back in Palo Alto in time for tea.
First up, it’s parkrun day and because of the heat, it starts at 8 am here. Daughter No 2’s flatmate has kindly offered to give us a lift to Byxbee Park in her Tesla. I’ve never been in a Tesla before. It’s basically controlled by a computer screen the same size as my TV! We reach the park and once I’ve worked out how to open the car door, we walk to the start line.
Much as I love the exhilaration of participating in UK style mass events, there’s something special about the friendly, community nature of the smaller US races. It’s my third Byxbee parkrun and my second fastest time. With such a small field, I manage to come first in my age group. There’s actually only two runners in my age group, but who’s counting? On the final bend, I overtake a hare – so that officially makes me the tortoise! After the run, someone has provided bagels and strawberry cream cheese, which is a nice reward for our early morning exertion. After chatting to the other runners, we have arranged to meet daughter No 1 and son-in-law (neither of whom could be persuaded to get up at stupid o’clock and run 5 km).
We go past a house which daughter No 2 has become obsessed with. The residents are very big on decorating their front garden with seasonal displays. Last time she passed, it was St Patrick’s Day, but now they have gone full on Easter. The trees are filled with hundreds upon hundreds of decorative eggs. It must have taken them hours!
We go for brunch at Crepevine, where I order an omelette. It’s enormous; the portion size is bordering on obscene – who actually has a stomach that can contain so much food? However, what I manage to eat tastes really good.
We drive back via Stanford’s Rodin Sculpture Garden. We had planned to visit on yesterday’s tour of the campus but we ran out of steam before we reached it.
We have one final hour left to relax by the pool before we have to depart for the airport. Our two week California has come to an end. We arrive at the airport in plenty of time and son-in-law is worried about getting offloaded. All goes smoothly and once we have completed the formalities and are sitting at the gate, discussion turns to when we should visit again?
This morning we have a 200 mile drive back to Palo Alto. It’s another scorcher, so we decide to start earlyish and drive straight through. First, we walk to the bakery recommend by the hotel receptionist; Splash and I buy some really tasty croissants stuffed with cheese, spinach and mushrooms.
Then we start on the first leg of our journey home, this time by the less scenic but much faster US101. We manage the whole trip in 3 hours.
Once back, we walk to Stanford campus to meet daughter No 2 for lunch and a mini guided tour. Much as it’s nice to see where she works, it’s boiling hot, so after after a whistle stop tour of the Quad, Memorial Church, Hoover Tower and a new art installation; ‘Hello’ which is designed to be half column, half snake, we retire to the pool at daughter No 2’s apartment.
For our final evening in California, we decide to go healthy and buy salads from Trader Joes for dinner. Not so healthy, we also go to Gott’s Diner for milkshakes. Once again, there is a communication breakdown. The others order milkshakes, I ask for an ice cream. We are given a buzzer to inform us when the order is ready. I am told I can collect my ice cream straight away. So I do. When the remainder of the order is collected, it comes with another ice cream. So much ice cream! Back at the apartment, the salads go into the fridge, where they stay. We spend the remainder of the evening chatting with daughter No 2’s flatmate and drinking wine.
This morning we have an early start as daughter No 1 has booked us onto a whale watching tour. I hate boats (it’s not natural bobbing around so far from solid ground), so have tried to get out of spending 3 hours on one. But she will not relent. After breakfast, we drive to Morro Bay to join our tour. It’s a lovely calm day. I’m not sure whether to be (a) relieved because it’s calm or (b) disappointed as there’s no way the tour is going to be cancelled.
We reach Morro Bay and board our boat; Freedom. The first 20 minutes of the journey are within the bay itself, so very pleasant. The captain goes through the safety briefing and points out that the coastguard are so close that if we get into trouble, it will only take 10 minutes for them to arrive and fish us out of the water. So far so good…
Then we leave the harbour for open ocean. Not only is it far choppier, but we stop by the harbour buoy which is covered in sea lions. The captain describes this as a ‘great white snack shack’. Suddenly, 10 minutes seems like a very long time!
We are only at sea another 18 minutes before we spot our first whale. It acts like it’s showing off just for us as it breaches again and again right in front of the boat. It’s such a spectacular sight I forget I hate boats for a while.
All is going well until a child suddenly projectile vomits all over himself and the man next to me. Everything stinks of sick despite the child’s mother spraying everything and everyone with water.
Our whale runs out of energy, so we sail further out to where a group of four whales are herding fish into a shoal for ease of eating while birds and sea lions waiting for lunch to be served. The captain makes sure to keep the whales on our port side (seeing as the starboard side is now covered with vomit).
We watch the whales a while longer. Two more people are sick. Then it’s time to return to harbour. It’s been an amazing experience, so I’m glad I was bullied into facing my fear of boats to watch these majestic creatures on their natural habitat.
We spend a little time wandering round the quaint little town of Morro Bay with its quirky shops, then have lunch at a restaurant with a deck overlooking the bay.
Then it’s time to continue to tonight’s destination; San Luis Obispo. We stop on the outskirts of town to have a peek at the Madonna Inn. This quirky pink palace has all sorts of funky features to explore. After a trip to the pink padded bathroom it’s time to move on.
After another brief stop at Target to stock up on gifts for family back home, it’s time to check in to our hotel. By now it’s a scorching 34 degrees and son-in-law is starting to flag. The receptionist gives us some advice about must-see attractions in SLO, so while son-in-law cools down, daughter No 1 and I walk to the main road (Higuera Street) to see Bubblegum Alley. Here, if you are so inclined (it’s rather disgusting but somehow compelling) you can see an alley way which has an estimated 2 million pieces of bubblegum stuck on the walls.
On Thursdays from 6-9 pm, Higuera Street is closed to traffic for several blocks for the weekly Farmers Market. This gathering of street stalls and entertainment has a real party atmosphere, particularly as it’s the night before Welcome Day at the local college (Cal Poly). It’s bit like a street party and freshers fair all rolled into one.
At the end of the market is San Luis Mission which dates back to the 18th Century.
It’s been a long, hot day, so we pick up some dinner and walk back to the hotel. Tomorrow we need to set off on our long journey home.
Today will mostly be remembered for being the day we nearly crashed and died when we inadvertently got between an American and a restaurant. One minute we were driving down the highway, the next, a car coming the other way pulled straight across in front of us with no warning. Daughter No 1 managed to simultaneously scream, slam on the brakes and swerve off the highway and we survived unscathed! We were in the process of driving 180 miles of Route 1, from Palo Alto to San Simeon. On my previous Californian road trip, Route 1 was closed just south of Monterey due to a landslide, so we hade to continue inland. This was a great disappointment as I really wanted to drive across Bixby Bride, so, today I get to visit another bucket list destination.
As I slept at daughter No 2’s flat and she has to work, and daughter No 1 (who slept at a motel in town) wants a lie in, I will be deposited at the pool at 8.30 and picked up 11 am – it’s a bit like care in the community! After a leftover breakfast of French toast with salted caramel sauce, I set forth for a morning of swimming/relaxing in the hot tub.
Then I am picked up and we set off on our mini Route 1 road trip, heading to Monterey for lunch.
We park up and take a wander along the sea front and the piers. Daughter No 1 is determined to spot a sea otter. At the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, we are out of luck; we spot sea lions and some super aggressive seagulls, but no otters. So we try the Municipal Wharf instead. Here we spot an enormous school of thousands up thousands of fish (possibly sardines – I’m not a fish expert).
On the edge of this school, happily floating on its back having had a tasty lunch is an otter. Mission accomplished! Unfortunately, I am not so lucky on the tasty lunch front. We go to Subway and I order the ‘Veggie Deluxe’, thinking that this will be a deluxe sandwich suitable for vegetarians. It turns out, it’s just bread and salad. How this can claim to be ‘deluxe’ in any way is beyond me…
After a wander round Monterey, we continue along Route 1 to Bixby Bridge. This was one of the highlights of my trip and it doesn’t disappoint. The main parking area is closed due to road works, but we find a spot on the other side of the road. So we get to see this iconic 1930s bridge, which connects the rugged Californian coastline with its Art Deco concrete grace (not sure Art Deco concrete is actually a thing) with an ocean backdrop.
Our next destination is Big Sur State Park. However, we’ve stopped so much en route that time is becoming an issue, so we opt to stop only briefly. In fact, as the only parking available is limited to 15 minutes, time is even more of an issue – just sufficient to pop to the toilet and take a quick walk along the redwood trail.
Our last stop is at Elephant Seal Vista. We were hoping to see some elephant seals, and we are certainly not disappointed; there are hundreds of them all along the beach. The adult males have departed, leaving the females and juveniles to chill in the Californian sunshine.
Onwards to tonight’s destination; San Simeon. We arrive at 6 pm and check into The Morgan Hotel. We have reserved the cheapest rooms; standard roadside, but the receptionist explains that as one of the rooms is required by someone who can’t manage stairs, the booking will be upgraded to deluxe. He hands us the keys and daughter No 1 immediately goes for the upgraded room key. I say I would have given her it anyway and we head off for our rooms. Just as I’m opening the door to my standard roadside room, the receptionist appears and says he wishes to reward me for my kindness in relinquishing the better room. He has up-upgraded me to a deluxe room with ocean view!
After checking in, the others go for a walk along the beach. I decline to join them – I can see the ocean from my bed, so why move? At least until it’s time for dinner and we pop to the Mexican restaurant, El Chorlito, next door. Daughter No 1 is so embarrassed about the upgrade incident, that we have to leave and enter the hotel via the fire exit, rather than the front door, past the judgemental receptionist.
The restaurant has an ocean view, so we order dinner and a pitcher of margaritas and dine while watching the sun set over the Pacific.
When offering us an upgrade, the receptionist was keen to point out that the deluxe rooms have a fireplace. To be honest, with the temperature hitting 31 degrees, a fireplace wasn’t that high on my wish list. I go to bed, but the light from the fire makes sleeping difficult – it’s so bright and the flickering is reflecting off the ceiling. So I call reception to be told that the pilot light is supposed to stay on permanently, but if it bothers me, I can blow it out. Not convinced I won’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning or some such, I blow out the light and open the window.
A few hours later, I wake up, still alive but thirsty. The tap water from the bathroom is warm and tastes of chlorine, so I decide to go to the vending machine and purchase a cold drink. I put my credit card in the slot, then realise that the slot is for dollar bills and my card is wedged in. I go looking for the receptionist and find him asleep on a sofa in the foyer. He finds some tweezers and after some considerable effort, manages to retrieve my credit card.
Today is a heady mix of driving and laundry. Check out is at 10am, then we have a 220 mile drive back to Palo Alto to drop off daughter No 2. Checking out is a complicated affair – we’re staying in one of those places where the owners feel the need to pepper the place with multiple lists of instructions. We must take our trash out, run the dishwasher (despite not having any dishwasher tablets), reset the heating etc.
Just when I thought my poor tired legs would get a break as they sat in the car for 5 hours, the kids have managed to squeeze in a 5 mile hike en route! We plan to stop at Mariposa Grove to see the giant sequoias. The road is closed to private vehicles, but the shuttle bus has been cancelled. Hence we must walk to and from the car park 2 miles away. The wonders of off season US tourism; tourist attractions are all open and heaving with people, but facilities are all closed.
So, an hour into our drive home, we park up and walk 2 miles (uphill) to the Welcome Plaza (which is closed – so more of an Unwelcome Plaza) to the grove containing the giant trees. There is a trail which runs around the grove (also closed). So we admire the trees from afar, then wall back to the car and continue our drive to the Bay Area.
Two hours later, we stop in Los Baños for lunch at The Black Bear Diner. We thought the owners of the Cozy Bear Cottage had gone overboard on the bear theme before we set foot inside the Black Bear Diner, but this is a whole new level! However, the main thing is – the food is really good, which is a relief after 3 hours of driving and 2 hours of hiking. The kids round the meal off with a chocolate cream pie and we set off for the final 2 hour drive to Palo Alto.
We finally get back around 5 pm. We have been travelling for 11 days now, so a laundry session is long overdue.
Daughter No 1 and son-in-law decide that after a long and tiring day, the perfect way to unwind is a trip to the pool/hot tub. I do not get off so easily; having moaned about losing my running mojo recently, daughter No 2 drags me to the track for a training session. I must cycle to to track, run the session, cycle to Gotts to collect dinner and cycle back again.
Much as I moan about being dragged off, it is my first track session of the year following an injury and it’s good to finally manage to run again (albeit slowly) after months sidelined with injury. And of course, being Stanford, it’s a very nice track – certainly a step up (or a hundred steps up) from the dismal facilities at Bournemouth.
After track, we purchase dinner (the kids buy burgers and I opt for a salad, as I had a burger for lunch) and return to meet the others at the pool, where they eat their burgers. I don’t have any cutlery, so just pick the felafal out of my salad, then stare at it for a while.
Back at the flat, we sort through the mountain of laundry (4 x 11 lots of clothes – plus the contents of daughter No 2’s laundry basket, which looks like it’s been untouched for a while!) and I finally get to eat my salad, before finally climbing into bed exhausted. Phase 1 our our trip is complete. Tomorrow (sans daughter No 2) we set off (with clean underwear), driving south along Route 1.
It’s our final day in Yosemite and there’s been a difference of opinion about the severity of today’s trail: daughter No 2 wants to go hard core with a scaling of El Capitan, while daughter No 1 prefers the gentler Valley Floor Loop. Son-in-law is somewhere in between and I just want to relax in the cabin with a good book! A compromise is reached and we head into the valley to hike the 7 mile Mist Trail. Facts they have omitted; (1) it’s a mile from the car park to the trail head, so the 7 mile walk is in fact 9 miles (2) this includes 880 metres of elevation (3) including 600 stone steps (4) which are wet with spray from the waterfall.
After a breakfast of bacon sandwiches, during which we manage to set the fire alarm off (twice), we drive once more from our cabin down into Yosemite Valley, park up and set off for the trail, which threads up and up alongside the Merced River. The first 2 miles are hard work but manageable.
Then, as we approach Vernal Falls, we must contend with the steps. And the spray. I take off my jumper to keep it dry and daughter No 2 puts it her rucksack, together with my water. She then saunters up the steps, never to be seen again.
Not only are the steps wet and slippery, but after the first 100 or so, the handrail stops. I manage maybe 400 steps before it dawns on me what a mission it’s going to be for an old lady with a bad knee to get back down again. The others are way ahead of me. I try to gesture that I’m going back down. Then begin the treacherous descent, which is thoroughly terrifying.
Once I reach the bottom, it occurs to me that I am wet and only wearing a t shirt and it could be some time before I’m reunited with my clothes. So, in order to keep warm, I continue walking until I am out of the forest (ie back at the car, which is in a clearing).
An hour later, the kids reappear and there is a difference of opinion about what proportion of the steps I actually managed. We drive on to El Capitan picnic area, where daughter No 1 and son-in-law can’t resist having a bash at climbing the huge monolith.
Then it’s back to the cabin for our final night in Yosemite. We have been here 3 days and walked a total of 24 miles and I am shattered.
Today, I have been cruelly manipulated. The kids want to do a 12 mile hike. I do not. I say I’m happy to do my own thing, but they will not let me off that easily and announce that we will go to Mirror Lake instead for a ‘nice and easy’ 2 mile walk.
We drive as near to the car park as we are able (it’s already very busy) and walk to a junction which gives the option of a nice, smooth, flat 1.4 mile walk or a 2 mile trail through the rocks. We take the trail option for some reason that no one is satisfactorily able to explain.
We walk the trail to the lake. It has to be said that Mirror Lake (so called because it is still enough to reflect the grandeur of the rocks it sits beneath) is worth the walk.
At this point, I would happily walk back to the car, but no – we must walk around the lake. This is, theoretically, another 2 miles until you reach Tenaya Bridge and cross the River Merced to return along the other side of the lake.
Somehow, we manage to lose the trail and end up walking into thicker and thicker woods until finally we reach two enormous fallen trees and cannot go on. We try to cut through the undergrowth to the trail. I’m not convinced – I’ve read the warnings about bears starting to come out of hibernation!
I am cajoled into this cross country climb to reach the trail, which frankly isn’t much better. By the time we have reached to bridge, we have walked 4.6 miles, including some climbing over rocks and tree trunks and quite a considerable amount of wading, as the trail becomes more stream than path.
When I finally glimpse the bridge, it is a source of great excitement. We cross and start walking back round the lake. Miles away from any form of civilisation, we bump into two Americans who ask us if we know where the bus stop is?!
By the time we reach the car, my nice short walk totals over 8 miles and has taken us almost 4 hours.
We stop off at the Yosemite Village Store for lunch and extra provisions, then drive to Tunnel View for a picnic. Here, near the entrance to Yosemite Valley a tunnel has been blown through the rock, so you enter into darkness, then exit to the view of Yosemite in all its splendour. Not a bad place for a picnic.
The others decide to take another hike, to Inspiration Point; the place where the road used to pass before the tunnel was constructed. I am all hiked out and sit and admire the view statically. Then it’s back to the cabin for fajitas and wine on the deck.
Today, we are going somewhere which ranks very high on the bucket list; Yosemite National Park. We will spend 3 nights at the Cosy Bear Lodge in Yosemite West. Having read some reviews of our accommodation, I have come to the conclusion that we’re going to either love it or hate it.
After a breakfast consisting mainly of waffles, we check out, stock up on supplies (our accommodation is 17 miles from the nearest shop) and set off for Yosemite along the Central Yosemite Highway, which follows the course of the Merced River, into the National Park.
Once we have paid our $35 entrance fee, we enter the park. A one way system is in operation; Southside Drive runs east along the south bank of the Merced, while Northside Drive runs west along the north bank.
We park up a couple of times as we drive along Southside Drive; first at Bridalveil Falls viewpoint. Then, we stop for lunch at Cathedral Beach picnic area, where we eat lunch in the shadow of El Capitan; a 914 metre high granite rock which towers above us. Three of us sit by the river, enjoying the view, while daughter No 2 can’t resist prospecting for gold in the Merced.
After lunch, we continue along Southside Drive to Yosemite Village and take a walk to see Yosemite Falls; one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. Water falls a total of 740 metres, in three sections. We take a trail to the bottom of the falls where the power of the water blows a huge amount of spray into the air.
We walk across bridge over the Merced to the 19th Century Yosemite Chapel, which sits beneath the enormous Half Dome which rises 1444 metres above the valley floor.
Then, back across another bridge, to rejoin the car. We drive along Northside Drive and head off to find our accommodation. We must ascend from the valley floor, along Wawona Road, up and up, until we are almost 2000 metres above sea level. The view is both spectacular and sad, as huge chunks of the forest have been destroyed by wildfires.
We reach our accommodation; Cosy Bear Cottages, in Yosemite West, some 17 miles from the valley floor. It’s a two bed cabin and the owners are very much guilty of taking a theme and running with it – literally everything is covered in bears. Bear bedding, lamps, tables, shower curtain… If you can buy it with bears on, it’s here.
Pre warned by reading reviews on trip advisor about the remoteness of the location, we have come stocked up on food (and wine) and have dinner on the patio before all the travel/fresh air/wine gets the better of me and I’m in bed by 7 pm!
Today is mostly about driving, as we head 160 miles south east to the outskirts of Yosemite. It’s a very American drive; we get on the interstate outside the motel and the next direction is to exit in 120 miles. That gives us sufficient time for the entire Wicked soundtrack. And tick, tick…BOOM!
Our destination is another old mining town; Mariposa. Here, we will spend a night at the Miner’s Inn and stock up with supplies before entering Yosemite National Park in the morning.
We arrive in Mariposa at 1.30 pm and order brunch in the Miners’s Roadhouse. As already mentioned, Mariposa’s history lies in gold mining (it sits atop the Mother Lode – a seam rich in gold discovered in the 1850s) and this restaurant has chosen to take the gold mining theme and run with it – and I’m not talking a sprint! There is a model of the Yosemite Valley Railroad running all round the ceiling and the toilets are designed to look like mine shafts.
After lunch, we attempt to check in, but our rooms aren’t ready. So we walk down the road to Mariposa Museum & History Center; a quaint little place detailing the history (mainly mining) of the town. Next, the Chamber of Commerce, which is home to the Visitor’s Center. Having exhausted the town’s tourist attractions, we return to our hotel. It’s now an hour past official check in time. The receptionist is extremely flustered as it’s ‘super busy’ (nobody else here except us) and says she has no idea if our rooms are ready. I offer to go and ask room service. This gets her even more flustered. We sit and wait while she mutters to us/herself/someone else – who knows?
We give up and drive a couple of miles out of town to Stockton Creek Preserve, where you can walk along a trail past a creek to a reservoir. The kids go for a long walk. I lose interest after half a mile – I’m tired and just want to check into my bloody room. I return to the car, which is parked on the main road in/out of town, mainly frequented by trucks driving crazy fast. It’s obviously a great place for roadkill and I sit and watch vultures soaring overhead waiting for lunch to be served by a high speed hillbilly.
Ninety minutes later, we return for another round of attempting to check in. The crazy receptionist is on a cigarette break, so all goes smoothly and we are able to check in without further incident. It may have taken 6 hours to clean our room, but this was insufficient time to get rid of the stink of tobacco smoke from the previous inhabitants.
Bad snell aside, it’s the nicest room we’ve stayed in so far (after a string of Motel 6’s) and the first hotel this trip to have reopened its pool. So we take a dip before dinner and an early night.
Today, we descend the Sierra Nevada and head for the outskirts of the Californian capital of Sacramento, where we are meeting a friend of my son-in-law. He has offered to show us round the historic town of Folsom. It’s an early start as we attempt to get through the sections of contraflow before the traffic is too heavy. And it’s definitely a day for layering, as it’s minus 3 degrees as we depart Lake Tahoe and 17 degrees by the time we reach our destination two hours later, rising to 26 degrees by mid afternoon.
We meet our host who takes us on a walking tour of the old town, along Sutter Street – these buildings, dating from the 1850s, were once the hang out of gold prospectors and a stop on the pony express. The museums haven’t yet reopened post Covid, but it’s still an interesting place to take a wander round.
We stop at the top of the street for lunch at the Hacienda del Rio which does amazing Mexican food and even more amazing cocktails – I choose an orange sherberita (orange sherbert margarita) which is really good!
Then we walk back down Sutter Street to the Crystal Basin Station for some wine tasting of produce from the Crystal Basin Winery situated some 30 miles east in Apple Hill in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We select a white wine flight; a selection of really good wines, but she throws in some equally tasty rosé and some Pommie (sparkling pomegranate wine) too.
Full to the top with burritos, margaritas and wine, we take a drive across the Rainbow Bridge to Folsom Prison, California’s second oldest prison, made famous in a song by Johnny Cash. From here, you can access the Johnny Cash Trail (more inspirational than actual – the trail connects various places connected with the singer’s life. There are plans to install public art along together route).
We finish our tour off walking off our lunch at Folsom Lake, created by damming the American River, which flows down the Sierra Nevada. It’s very pretty and we also spot plenty of wildlife, including ground squirrels (I did even know they were a thing) and a coyote.
The remainder of the day is spent visiting our host’s toy store and then back to his home for a barbecue with his family.